From the beginning to now
Horsham Music Circle’s first concert was held in May 1942 in the Friends’ Meeting House in Worthing Road. Recalling the early days 21 years later for the Circle’s coming of age concert, Mr D J Coulson, then headmaster of Collyer’s, wrote: “Even in those uncertain wartime days the Circle showed unmistakably that it had the three fundamental requisites for all successful enterprises – a modest beginning, energetic optimism and an organiser who combined the rare gifts of imaginative foresight and outstanding musicianship with tremendous drive and apparently tireless enthusiasm. From that very first concert in which she herself played the piano, until she retired in 1970 (aged 80), Miss Grace Humphery was not merely the Honorary Organising Secretary’, but the symbol and embodiment of the Music Circle itself”.
The history of the Music Circle has not been marked by sensationalism. It began with concerts on the second Friday of each month. For the first sixteen years they were held in the Friends’ Meeting House. In 1958 they moved to Collyer’s School where they took place first in the old hall and then, from 1968, in the Duckering Hall, at Collyer’s.
By then the Circle was stretching its wings. Starting in 1955 it held anniversary concerts in the town’s Capitol Theatre, then still at the ‘hub of the town’ in the Carfax. These were so successful that in 1976 the Circle took the bold step of moving all its concerts there. It was a move welcomed by artists and patrons alike.
But within only six years the very existence of the Circle was threatened when it was decided to demolish the Capitol Theatre to make way for the Swan Walk shopping centre. The Circle was homeless. It had to store its Bluthner piano and – much more difficult – arrange concerts for which a piano was not needed. Fortunately the Methodist Hall was able to make space for two concerts to finish the 1982/83 season.
Jill Elsworthy had taken over as Admin Secretary in 1978 and became Honorary Organising Secretary in 1982. Now she and members of the Circle were only too conscious that the loss of their ‘home’ could be critical and of the need to maintain their support. In the event all concerts at the Methodist Hall were well- attended. The next season was held there and in spite of the programming difficulties without a piano was highly successful.
A delay in the opening of the new Capitol Theatre in the former Ritz cinema meant that two concerts had to be held in the Duckering Hall. But the new theatre was finally finished and by the end of the 1985 season the much-missed piano came out of store and the Circle was well established in its new home.
Ownership of a first class piano has been vital to the Circle’s success. Most of the early concerts were given by Miss Humphery’s personal friends and without their generous gift of time – they sometimes played only for expenses – the financial future of the Circle would have been difficult. But it quickly became prosperous enough to buy a Bluthner grand piano, an instrument worthy of the artists who were coming to play.
But the willingness of the artists to give their time would not have been enough to establish the Circle’s reputation. Miss Humphery insisted on the highest of standards in both playing and platform presence. Many now well-established artists will remember during their first visit to the Circle as young players being taken to one side by her during the nerve-racking moments before a concert and being told to give an extra polish to their shoes! She also coached them in proper bows.
For services to music – mostly to Horsham Music Circle – she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours of 1972 and received the insignia from the Queen Mother later in the year.
The organisation of 986 concerts in 74 years, the presentation of distinguished artists in a friendly yet impeccably professional atmosphere, the ardent work of the committee and the host of voluntary helpers and generous patrons – that, rather than balance sheets, is the history of Horsham Music Circle.
But there are no statistics or balance sheets to describe the contribution in terms of musical pleasure and experience the Music Circle has made to the cultural life of the town and the county or explain why it comes so high on agents’ lists. The roll of just a few of the artists who have been the Circle’s guests in the past seventy years reads like some great Pageant of Performers; names who are great, names who were great in their time, names who became great and others who were invited simply because they had the inestimable gift of spreading their love of music to other people.
But a lack of sensationalism does not mean a lack of drama. It has been there in some inspired performances. There have also been moments when artists have lost their way in the town’s one-way streets and a memorable occasion when an appeal was made among the audience for a pair of cuff-links because the pianist had forgotten to pack his own and was reluctant to play with his cuffs flapping! A few months later another pianist arrived without a white shirt; a committee member just caught a Swan Walk shop before it closed. Another artist arrived without his dress suit; the local hire shop had no tails but fitted him up with a black wedding outfit.
Not so amusing at the time was the pianist who suddenly stopped playing and walked off. Despite repeated assurances long before the concert that he would play the Circle’s Bluthner he decided, well into his programme, that he preferred a different brand of piano! Perversely the event has attained a cachet all of its own among members. “Were you there”, they ask each other, “the night the pianist walked out?”
There have also been times when members have feared for the physical safety of their precious Bluthner, and not always from a heavy-handed pianist playing it in the normal way. One composer-lecturer startled them by reaching into the open lid and hitting the strings with hammers. The piano was unharmed. After many years good service, the treasured Bluthner was retired in 2004.
It is greatly to the credit of Miss Humphery’s successors, Mrs Betty Gripper as administrative secretary with Miss Humphery’s son, Mr Brian Harmsworth as Organising Secretary, Miss Louise de Ward, and the present Organising Secretary, Miss Jill Elsworthy, that the Circle has never over-reached itself. Visits by orchestras or large groups have been rare. The emphasis has always been on quality and the outstanding solo performer became the lynch-pin of its success.
Much has changed since the early days. The pattern of recital, although intimate, tended then to be formal. Only at specific lecture-recitals did the artist talk directly to the audience, although many of them appreciated the friendly atmosphere and reception well enough to want to stay after the concerts and talk with members.
The music presented was also of the fashion of the time, with its emphasis on the major composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. For those today who find such severity unimaginable it is worth remembering that international players of the day seldom played outside London and the provincial cities, that for most of the early years there were only two radio programmes and that piano recordings lacked their modern high fidelity. Nowadays, most recitals are less formal, with the performer talking about himself and the works.
With the growth of Circle membership during some years it was possible on occasion to engage more specialist ensembles. For several seasons the Circle added concerts especially for children – an innovation which hoped to inspire new young audiences.
In 1985 the Circle’s programme was also expanded to take members on coach trips to concerts and centres of musical interest. Since then there have been visits to the Royal Festival Hall, Barbican, Glyndebourne Opera House, Brentford Museum of Instruments, Dolmetsch Workshops, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Finchcocks’ Historic Collection of Keyboard Instruments, Royal Albert Hall, Kent Opera at Eastbourne, Royal College of Music, the Royal Concert, Fairfield Halls, St Paul’s Cathedral, Birmingham Symphony Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, and the Bath Festival.
A sign of the Circle’s status, even from its early days, is that it has always had a prominent international musician as its President. The first was Sir Arnold Bax. On his death the position was filled by Dr Edmund Rubbra and now by André Previn. The Circle’s Patrons have included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob and Leon Goossens. The Circle was saddened last year at the death of its long standing Patron, Sir Colin Davis.
An appeal for extra funds to celebrate the 50th Anniversary was launched in 1990 with a Garden Party and closed in 1991 with a Tea Concert. During that year and entirely by their own efforts the members raised a total of £1,200. A decade later this effort was repeated with the launch of the Millennium fund which raised £1060. The 70th Anniversary Appeal raised over £3000 through extra concerts, members’ generous donations and social events. The fund raising continues to support the promotion of professional recitals, chamber music, jazz and light music performances. In June 2014 a hugely successful benefit concert was staged at the Drill Hall which raised £2400. This was masterminded by Harry the Piano and included stars of the West End together with professional classical artists.
What of the future? The Circle is starting its 75th year. The years ahead will hold new challenges, with society’s changing life-style and ﬁnancial constraints. Last Season, concerts were held successfully at The Drill Hall and St. Mark’s Church. For this new season, as well as concerts in these two venues, we are delighted to be working in association with The Capitol for two concerts and Christ’s Hospital for one concert. Our Anniversary concert will be held at St Mary’s Parish Church.
The Circle has shown that music is indeed the food of love, and for Horsham the banquet for the future still looks to be a most lavish spread.